Dr. Michael Johnson, Commissioner of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, speaks about a reduced funding for education to the Senate Finance Committee at the Capitol on Monday Feb. 18, 2019. (Michael Penn/ Juneau Empire)

Dr. Michael Johnson, Commissioner of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, speaks about a reduced funding for education to the Senate Finance Committee at the Capitol on Monday Feb. 18, 2019. (Michael Penn/ Juneau Empire)

Senate Finance grills OMB, Education Commissioner over budget

Hoffman calls 25 percent proposed cuts to education ‘unacceptable’

Sen. Lyman Hoffman called Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to education “unacceptable,” setting the tone for the Senate Finance Committee meeting Monday at the Capitol.

The committee went through a budget presentation on the Department of Education and Early Development, grilling members of the Office of Management and Budget, as well as Education Commissioner Michael Johnson.

“It’s one of the key components in the state’s budget that everyone says they support,” Hoffman, D-Bethel, said at the start of the meeting. “The budget reduces (the education budget) by over $300 million. But, to put that into perspective of what is really happening, you’re proposing to cut one fourth of the funds … 25 percent of the budget in education. … From my viewpoint I find that completely unacceptable.”

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, asked OMB Director Donna Arduin how these cuts would improve education outcomes for students.

“We’re doing this because the state is out of money and we need to balance our budget,” Arduin said. She explained how additional education funding in the current year was allocated from the Constitutional Budget Reserve and that can no longer happen. “We’re proposing this so we can get our budget and our fiscal house in order.”

Bishop responded saying, “With all due respect ma’am, that’s the wrong answer.”

[High school robotics team advances to Worlds competition]

Rep. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, asked Johnson if the state board of education had made a statutorily required recommendation on the proposed budget. Johnson said the board had tabled this decision. The education commissioner is selected by the state’s board of education, not appointed by the governor.

Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, explained how spending has increased but the number of students has decreased since 2006. She said most of that is going toward employee benefits. In 2006, the state spent $302 million on benefits and in 2017 the state spent $596 million on employee benefits, a 97 percent increase. Imhof said 2017 was the most recent figures available.

“Districts are spending less on books and curriculum and more on health care for their teachers. No fault, it just is what it is,” Von Imhof said. “So rather than just making a big cut across the board, say all 53 districts. ‘You’re your own.’ Maybe a better approach might’ve been let’s help you with our highest cost driver and see if we can as a state come up with a solution that makes sense that helps everybody. I’m not really hearing that. I think that’s a problem.”

Arduin responded saying the OMB does not have control over school districts and how they spend money.

Hoffman told Johnson that Von Imhof makes a strong case that the administration is not coming forward in a constructive manner in order to address education problems.

“It’s not always about the checkbook,” Hoffman said. “It can’t be only about the checkbook.”

Hoffman recommended Johnson fulfill his statutory obligation and bring his board together and make a recommendation on the education budget, rather than hide behind the Legislature and wait for it to make changes to the budget.

“That is what the people of Alaska expect you to do, is to defend and preserve education for all the students of the state,” Hoffman said to Johnson.

Toward the end of the meeting, Mike Barnhill, a policy analyst at the OMB, said he would like to say he was happy to be at the finance meeting but that would not be true.

“I think the conversation that just happened is incredibly important to Alaska,” said Barnhill. “There is literally no plan we can put before this committee to which there is some element, someone won’t hate.”

The Senate Finance Committee will continue its review of the budget by department throughout the week.


• Contact reporter Kevin Baird at 523-2258 or kbaird@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alaska_kev.


More in News

Vehicles are unleaded at the Seward Harbor after being moved from Lowell Point on Sunday, May 22, 2022 in Seward, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management)
Lowell Point barge services move 110-plus cars to Seward

The services were covered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and ended Monday

Anglers fish on the Kenai River on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Watershed Forum receives matching grant from Conoco

The Kenai Watershed Forum was given a grant from ConocoPhillips to fund… Continue reading

A beach on the eastern side of Cook Inlet is photographed at Clam Gulch, Alaska, in June 2019. The Alaska Board of Fisheries is implementing new shellfish regulations in Cook Inlet. (Peninsula Clarion file)
Fish and Game closes East Cook Inlet razor clam fisheries

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the Cook Inlet… Continue reading

Anastasia Scollon (left) and Willow King (right) stand in The Goods + Sustainable Grocery and Where it’s At mindful food and drink on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Sustainable shopping finds new home in Soldotna

The Collective used to operate out of Cook Inletkeeper’s Community Action Studio

The Alaska State Capitol is seen on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Legislature modernizes 40-year-old definition of consent in sexual assault cases

‘Alaska took a gargantuan step forward in updating our laws,’ says deputy attorney general

Project stakeholders cut a ribbon at the Nikiski Shelter of Hope on Friday, May 20, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Stakeholders celebrate opening of Nikiski shelter

The shelter officially opened last December

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with reporters Thursday about the state’s budget at the Alaska State Capitol. Dunleavy said lawmakers had sent a complete budget, and that there was no need for a special session.
Dunleavy: No need for special session

Governor calls budget “complete”

A magnet promoting the Alaska Reads Act released sits atop a stack of Alaskan-authored and Alaska-centric books. Lawmakers passed the Alaska Reads Act on the last day of the legislative session, but several members of the House of Representatives were upset with the bill, and the way it was passed. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
In last-minute move, Legislature passes early reading overhaul

Rural lawmakers push back on Alaska Reads Act

Graduates wait to receive diplomas during Connections Homeschool’s commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Connections honors more than 100 graduates

The home-school program held a ceremony Thursday in Soldotna

Most Read